HOUSTON – Navy Veteran Larry knows that, in the minds of many, the thought of a homeless person conjures up images of someone who is disheveled, addicted, and destitute. Unfortunately, Larry was all of those things and more, but with the help of the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, he was able to turn his life around and again become a productive member of society.
“The Houston VA played a major part in getting me back on track,” said Larry. “Ms. Gates helped me find a job and a place to stay.”
Ms. Gates is Jeri Gates, L.C.S.W., a Housing and Urban Development VA Supportive Housing case manager at MEDVAMC. Her job is to get homeless Veterans off the street and back on their feet.
“I think Larry’s story is amazing,” said Gates. “I feel really fortunate to have witnessed his transformation and success. He overcame a great many hurdles. I am glad I have been here to watch him maintain his recovery.”
Larry’s path to recovery started by first humbling himself and admitting that he had a problem.
“I had to admit I had a problem that I could not solve by myself,” said Larry. “I knew I had to go somewhere to get a plan of action to stay sober because mine wasn’t working.”
Larry went to the McGovern Drop-In Center for Homeless Veterans located at 1418 Preston Avenue in downtown Houston. This facility is the key entry point for assistance and resources for homeless Veterans. When a Veteran comes in, a comprehensive individual assessment is performed by the staff.
“This assessment helps determine the next best step for the Veteran,” said Gates. “It may be the Veteran has a mental health or substance abuse problem and may benefit from residential substance abuse treatment through the Grant Per Diem program in coordination with the VA Substance Dependence Treatment Program and a community partner such as the Salvation Army Harbor Lights Program, Extended Aftercare, or for women Veterans, the Santa Maria Hostel.”
After his initial assessment, Larry was immediately referred to a social worker who creates comprehensive treatment plans for homeless Veterans with substance use or misuse, or mental health problems and coordinates vocational rehabilitation services.
“I walked in, on my own, and I told them I was in desperate need of housing and a job,” said Larry. “The guy at the front said to wait one minute and that is when Ms. Gates appeared. She took the time to find out all about me and told me about a VA program called TWE.”
The Transitional Work Experience Program is a VA work therapy program where Veterans enter 90-day on-the-job training programs. Some veterans receive a certificate that documents their proficiency in hospital linen processing duties while other veterans may receive a general housekeeping certificate. Others with the desire to develop more advanced skills receive classroom and on-the-job training in hospital safety, body mechanics, patient room cleaning, equipment operation, proper handling of biohazard trash, customer service standards, infection control, special procedures for transporting wheelchair and stretcher patients, and techniques to clean critical care areas such as surgical suites, spinal cord units, and nursing home areas.
“It’s a great program,” said Gates. “A lot of Veterans transition into it from our Incentive Therapy program. The program helps Veterans who have not worked in a while. It gives them a chance to work on things like showing up to work on time, keeping a schedule, having a boss, and having to wear a uniform every day. The program is invaluable to the Veterans we serve.”
Larry was also given information on the Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUDVASH) program where a Veteran participates in case management with a VA social worker in regards to housing. From there, if eligible, they receive a voucher subsidizing their rent from a housing authority. The Veteran pays about 30 percent of their income to rent. The housing is considered to be a permanent as long as the Veteran continues to qualify financially and participates in case management.
“After she got me the TWE job, Ms. Gates let me know that, as a homeless Veteran, I would be eligible for a housing voucher through HUDVASH,” said Larry. “She gave me a list of places where I could move. Since I knew that I would be working at the VA and I didn’t have any transportation, I chose an apartment close by.”
“Here in Houston, we are fortunate to have more than 700 housing vouchers,” said Gates. “I think we have made a positive change in a many Veterans’ lives by providing a stable living environment for them. Once they have a stable place to live, then they have time to address some of the other things that may be going on in their lives like family issues, education, and job training. Being off of the streets and out of a shelter can make a big difference.”
Once he found work and had a stable place to live, Larry was able to turn his TWE position into a permanent, full-time position in the Houston VA’s Food and Nutrition Department. He has worked his way out of the HUDVASH voucher program and now goes to work every day and pays his own rent.
“I love my job here at the Houston VA. I love it because of the people I am in contact with. My job is to prepare food for my fellow Veterans,” said Larry. “I am helping people who are sick and need words of encouragement and comfort. That’s my real job. I have always had an understanding and outgoing personality to help people through whatever they may be going through. God gave me skills to help people and now I get to do that every day.
“I hope that one person is going to read this article and say `Let me go down to the Houston VA and see if I can get some help,’” said Larry. “Because I did, the world was opened up to me.”
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Awarded re-designation for Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services in 2008, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves as the primary health care provider for more than 130,000 veterans in southeast Texas. Veterans from around the country are referred to the MEDVAMC for specialized diagnostic care, radiation therapy, surgery, and medical treatment including cardiovascular surgery, gastrointestinal endoscopy, nuclear medicine, ophthalmology, and treatment of spinal cord injury and diseases. The MEDVAMC is home to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic; Network Polytrauma Center; an award-winning Cardiac and General Surgery Program; Liver Transplant Center; VA Epilepsy and Cancer Centers of Excellence; VA Substance Abuse Disorder Quality Enhancement Research Initiative; Health Services Research & Development Center of Excellence; VA Rehabilitation Research of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; and one of the VA’s six Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Centers. Including the outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Galveston, Houston, Lufkin, Richmond, and Texas City, MEDVAMC outpatient clinics logged almost 1.3 million outpatient visits in fiscal year 2011. For the latest news releases and information about the MEDVAMC, visit www.houston.va.gov.